October 24, 2014
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From Gorton to Ecumenicalism
Then and Now
Terry D'Amato Spencer

On September 24, 2006, as part of the dedication of a park bench in Apponaug honoring historian Don D’Amato, Mayor Scott Avedisian announced that he had sent letters to the leaders of all the faiths in Warwick asking for their help in documenting and preserving Warwick’s history. John Howell, publisher of the Warwick Beacon and Cranston Herald, in keeping with the concept of the historical significance of religious institutions in Warwick, made a series written by Don D’Amato available in these newspapers. Please enjoy my fathers’ writings. Thank you, Terry D’Amato Spencer.

Religion, perhaps more than any other single influence, played a most important role in the founding of Warwick. When Roger Williams settled in Rhode Island in 1636, he very wisely insisted there be a separation of church and state in the colony. He believed all should have the privilege of worshipping his supreme deity as he was led to do by his conscience. As a result, Rhode Island has no state established church. It also meant that the small colony would be a haven for all those whose religious beliefs differed from that established in England and in the Puritan theocracy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

This concept of religious freedom was carried to an even greater extent in Warwick, or Shawomet as it was called in 1642. Samuel Gorton, called by some “a turbulent troublemaker” and by others “a charismatic saint,” held views on religion that made him an outcast in Boston, Plymouth and Providence. In 1643 soldiers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony invaded Shawomet and took Gorton and his followers to Boston. Gorton was tried as a heretic and sentenced to hard labor for his religious beliefs. After being released, he went to England to plead his case before Parliament. Thanks to the influence of Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick, the Gortonists were allowed to return to America and continue with their colony. In gratitude to the Earl, Shawomet was renamed Warwick.

His views, so often in conflict with his fellow colonists, were responsible for his establishing a separate colony and in attracting those extreme religious beliefs. Within a very short time, dissidents from areas in New England flocked to Warwick to enjoy the privilege of worshipping as they believed, causing many to wonder how men of such different beliefs could co-exist. They did, of course, for many reasons, and in time many of the more extreme small groups merged with others of similar persuasion.

Gorton held many views that today are accepted but at the time were considered extremely radical and dangerous. Some of his beliefs included a direct contact with God rather than through an intermediary priest or minister, in the equality of men and women in preaching in church, and in a belief that no one should be held in lifelong slavery. In time, his followers merged with other sects, but his tolerance on ideas attracted many to Warwick.

It is no wonder that many of the more controversial groups were welcome in Warwick and attracted a large number of followers. One of the most controversial and extreme groups that held views similar to the Gortonists was the Quakers. The only New England state to welcome them was Rhode Island. In Warwick they attracted a number of followers, including members of the powerful Greene family. Other groups who found tolerance and acceptance in Warwick in the early days of the colony were the Jewish and the Huguenots.

In time, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics and various other groups, some of which have been long forgotten, began to find their way in the area. As the textile industry grew along the Pawtuxet River, thousands of immigrants were drawn to the mills, looking for a life better than that of their homelands. These newcomers brought with them customs, ideas and a vitality that enriched the colony. They also came with strong religious views and soon established churches and temples of their own.

This is all part of our rich heritage and now, in the 21st century, these churches continue to play a vital part in the community. Now as then, much of the rich fabric that makes life in Warwick can be traced to these religious institutions.

The stories of Warwick’s houses of worship will be continued.


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